Book Review

To begin with Elizabeth Scanlon’s fine-sounding title, what is this book’s gnosis and in what lies its lonesomeness? The Greek word gnosis resists precision. It means a knowledge that is, at turns, saintly, intuitive, uncanny, or experiential, or all or some or none of these, but never theoretical, abstract, or epistemological. Among American poets, Allen Tate perhaps came closest to the mark with his formula of “knowledge carried to the heart,” a mode of cognition that Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies call cardiognosis. There is an egalitarian aspect to how the Church Fathers imagined gnosis in this manner; the Philokalia, an Eastern Orthodox Church guide for monks, stresses that there is no secret path to it apart from simply contemplating, witnessing. Gnosis therefore opposes the Gnostic idea of higher self-knowledge through alchemies, secrets, magics, rubrics, and the like. The old monks called this pseudonymos gnosis, “so-called knowledge,” or the “false knowledge of the learned.”

Because Scanlon’s searching, philosophical poems are such smart work, it can be tempting to read them, or misread them, through a contemporary poetic turn to the pseudonymos gnosis as aesthetic—an apartment with a divining rod propped in the broom closet, the sky past the fire escape window a mess of astrological signs that one half believes in. One of Scanlon’s reviewers remarks on her “trick of sounding breezy,” her “good eye” for highway billboards, teenage thumb-suckers, subways, “seven silver sedans” and “the black moon.” Another critic notes her “wry, clear, bemused eye,” and yet another the book’s “post-pastoral metropolis of take-out and laundromats.” There are echoes of Frank O’Hara here, the rhetorical everydayness, both urban and slyly urbane, that permits the speaker of “A Taste for It” to arrive at conclusions like, “Here in South Philly, we have gotten too far away / from what the Romans knew too well.” Part of what the Romans knew, the “starkness of speech, compression of both pain and joy, and . . . stoic self-possession” that Helen Vendler observes in Franz Wright’s verse, is also part of the ethos of Lonesome Gnosis, as are periodic turns to the surreal confessionalism of poets like Thomas James. Given such diverse, interwoven, soft echoes, Horsethief Books, one of the most interesting new presses of the past few years, advertises Lonesome Gnosis as “restless, mystic, and matter-of-fact,” an attempt to “dig down to the root—whether it be physical, psychological, or epistemological” in poems where “knowing is a form if indecision and escape, . . . language itself is the subject of the sacred and profane,” and “desire is an expression of indeterminacy.”

I confess I have no idea what that means. In consequence though, I opened Lonesome Gnosis looking for magic and happily found none. Scanlon’s speakers and I, at least at turns, are likeminded. In “What You’re Saying,” the speaker describes “knowing less and less / of you or what it was I was trying to explain / when I had started in a dead language I don’t actually speak.” Her speaker is too “stink alive” for obfuscation, mystification, “and therefore prone / to making things up.” Throughout this book, aliveness is the central fact that occurs to Scanlon’s speakers. It suggests possibilities of real purpose for the consumerist desiderata of Lonesome Gnosis’s laundromat metropolis. At the same time, it prevents calcification into Gnostic aesthetics, the dead language of poetic coteries, or spiritual coteries where the point is that I am a Capricorn who orders takeout on a phone app. Middle-ground aliveness and its recognition moment is where language happens. It draws Sanskrit chants into conversation with middle-class truisms—“it’s not about you get over it” or “ok, sure, the meaningless gets to me sometimes.” It also establishes everydayness as the location of real doubt and real spiritual longing, as when the speaker asks in “What You’re Saying” whether:

it [is] music when you can say what you mean without using the words
you mean? Creator, destroy me
being a bit blunt, a tad maudlin, the English would say
and the bowing and beseeching part no one wants
to say out loud. You know? I said, knowing less and less.

Scanlon’s poems operate at the moment of enjambment between the last two lines above, the ostensible rejection of all the “bowing and beseeching” of the invisible world that turns out to be the heart’s fullest desire, albeit a private one. “Creator, destroy me,” as John Donne’s speaker might utter, “batter my heart, three-person’d God,” but in secret because there is no language for this in the “post-pastoral metropolis.”

Scanlon is wont to qualify and interrogate such moments but refuses to dismiss them. The everydayness of South Philadelphia and facts of bare life throughout her poetic landscapes do not permit her speakers the luxurious repose of either special, secret knowledge or the dismissal of meanings that are not the products of language, perspective, and imagination. In “The Brain Is Not the United States,” it is the complexity of the natural organ and not the mind’s idea of the mind that allows her speaker to shed ideologies and conclude that:

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
and we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.

Her poems throughout are driven by doubt and the mature recognition of doubt. In one of the finest poems of the collection “More Hound than Not,” there is a “blind dog with the smell of the hunt” that the poem quickly recasts as us:

lashing through weeds, wet on the face, air in lungs,
blood in limbs, and maybe it smells like shit, maybe
it’s the pelt of a dead thing by the time you get there,
but still you want the prize of blood on your nose,
stink in your fur, but still you chase.

If Scanlon’s speakers spend a great deal of time walking around the neighborhood, talking about “the nanny state” and “aspirational wellness,” it is because Lonesome Gnosis understands that we are social animals despite desiring “the prize of blood” on our noses in blindness. Again, our enjambment: Is it that no one wants it or that no one wants to say it out loud? And what is it that we should say aloud, should desire? Can a Creator destroy us?

If there is a secret handshake in this book, it is not a pseudonymos one. It is between Scanlon and the Catholic existentialist, Walker Percy. The phrase “lonesome gnosis,” which also refracts the title of Scanlon’s poem “The Peculiar Gnosis of Trains,” is a deliberate allusion to Percy’s philosophical novel The Moviegoer. In The Moviegoer, Percy’s narrator admires this gnosis, this illumination as “the eminence from which there is revealed both the sorry litter of the past and the future bright and simple as can be, and the going itself, one’s privileged progress throughout the world.” Each of Scanlon’s speakers could be the narrator of a Walker Percy novel—commonplace, self-reflexive, attuned to doubt in a precise sense, not as the possibility that a Creator of some sort does not exist but rather that one might. In “The Peculiar Gnosis of Trains,” the speaker concludes with “the jump / as beginnings leap,” comparing this to the moment when a “crowd gathers below a ledge.” In Lonesome Gnosis, her speakers peer over the edge of enjambments between doubt and some sort of faith. But how long is the leap of that enjambment, its peculiar and lonesome gnosis? “It is not so much the teeth,” Scanlon reminds us, “as / the alligator’s immensity of tongue that awes.”


About the Reviewer

Matthew Carey Salyer is the author of the chapbook Lambkin and a poetry collection Ravage & Snare (Pen & Anvil, 2019). His work, which has been nominated for several awards, has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hunger Mountain, Poetry Northwest, Thrush, Plume, the Common, and numerous other journals. At present, he works as an Associate Professor at West Point. He lives in The Bronx at the end of the 4.